VT Design Technology Educators Assoc. comments 5/8/15 VT Tech

Comments: VT Design Technology Educators Assoc.

May 8, 2015  at VT Tech – Randolph

The challenge for those of us who teach or, in my case, taught, is to maintain the humility to care about how we are perceived by our students, how best to use their perception of us to teach, and how to avoid settling comfortably into our own minds, secure in our titles as professionals.

Remember, we experience school differently from our students. We enter school at one grade level and usually remain there while their lives keep changing as they move from entry to graduation along a year-to-year continuum, and each teacher along the way has their own impact.

What your student experiences in school and at home before arriving in your classroom affects if and how he or she is engaged by your efforts to teach them. If they arrive full of curiosity and wonder, your job is a joy; if they arrive jaded and dismissive, or hungry, abused, or homeless, your job will be difficult at best. The good news is that young people have a remarkable capacity for reinvention with good stewardship and support.

I say this only because some of you may see yourselves as specialists, teaching a vital part of the curriculum, but, trust me, your students see you mostly as a person, for better or for worse. You’re one of many in their life and learning experience. You have the potential to be the least or most important part of their educational school experience.

Having taught briefly, I still bristle when people blame our schools for their children’s ills or the ills of society. The two most critical external impacts on educational success, I believe, are the learning culture in a student’s home and their economic and physical security.

The intellectual milieu in our own homes, the example parents set for their children, and the respect we instill in them for their life in school, I believe, are the biggest drivers in their success or failure. Tax-grousing, helicopter-parenting, fake self-esteem-building, “edutainment,” trigger-warnings, and other risk-eliminators, are all enemies of learning.

Too many parents today are emotionally dependent on their own children, a recipe for life-long failure. Our children will, in fact, be who we are, not who we tell them to be – at home or in school. I mention these things only because I am convinced we must not only re-envisage the public educational system but talk more broadly about education’s place in the community and the world.

First, we have to move beyond nursery, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, junior high, high school and college. These educational strata are all overgrown with the moss of their own self-importance and their dubious graduation ceremonies only distract us from the natural continuum of childhood development and the unique paces at which our children mature intellectually and emotionally. Even worse, they measure time served rather than acquired skills.

The educational continuum should track a natural migration away from the emotional and intellectual security of homelife into the mystery, wonder and demands of the larger adult world. Our job as parents and teachers is to create resilient, curious, and independent adults who can invent, communicate and develop a habit of lifelong learning.

Proximity to home should be age-specific. The polarized argument for small, local schools misses this point entirely. Of course, families want their young children nearby in their community, especially if entrance to public school becomes optional at age three and mandatory at age four when children are already deep into learning.

Pre-school to grade four should be in the heart of our communities, no matter how small. Primary schools can function economically and effectively in small spaces with a modest number of students and a few teachers. Generalist math, reading/writing, natural science, art teachers, and child development specialists are needed for the early grades. Much of our fear of regional consolidation is about bussing small children to large and distant schools. As a parent, I’d fear the same thing.

Middle and high schools, however, can be consolidated regionally. Increased scale allows better-resourced curricular diversity. As the child enters fifth grade in a regional school, generalist teachers are replaced by entire departments of specialized teachers, offering six sciences, design technology, foreign languages, Vermont, American, and World history, business, civics, information technology, multiple math disciplines, and studio and performance arts.

The contention that local control equals quality is nonsense. Great, well-trained teachers, visionary leadership, and streamlined governance are at the heart of any great system. CVU in Hinesburg and U-32 in East Montpelier are but two fine academic examples of consolidated systems.

I believe that for some, college should be as far away from home as possible – maybe even abroad, given domestic tuition costs. As I said earlier, our job is to make our children more, not less, resilient and independent.

The world is evolving far more rapidly than when we were young – sometimes for the better and sometimes not. The changes I’ve seen in my own lifetime are staggering.

The impact of media, communication technology, mass transit, and global businesses has eroded our town boundaries, economies, and social cultures. Geography, as we have known it, is irrelevant. Politics, slavery, famine, and war drive mass migrations from continent to continent. Credit cards enable remote business transactions. Television homogenizes a thousand world cultures into a few. The internet moves information from one end of the world to the other as easily as across the room. Cell service and Wi-Fi cuts wires. It’s a different world and this has important implications for education.

Let me try to be more specific to your own field. I believe the work you do needs roots in the early grades, as well, helping kids experience the thrill of problem inquiry and discovery. You bring new and emerging tools to problem-solving at all levels. Curiosity doesn’t start in high school but, too often, it ends there.

In high school, I was the beneficiary of inquiry-based learning. No more than 14 students sat around a large oval table and discussed what we believed we had learned, guided by a wise and supportive teacher. You do the same but in a working space filled with tools and resources.

Do students come to you understanding problem-solving in the physical world? Do they know how to use today’s emerging tools to address real-world problems rather than using them to “amuse themselves to death,” as Neil Postman predicts in his classic text?

How do we help our students care enough to envision how the made-world might be improved and put that vision into play by working alongside them as they try to design and build a better world? They need both affective and empathetic support from a trusted learning guide as they work to solve a problem. They need cognitive support, as well, that guides, understands, and recognizes their failures and success in discovery.

The emotional climate of the learning space must offer each child personal confidence, security, and trust in their process. One needs both the artistry and confidence to allow students to take ownership of their work and develop it in unexpected ways. You are called on to provide emotional support when needed and offer the appropriate level of intellectual challenge and questioning to help the student develop his or her ideas.

I would guess that open-ended, real-life problems, using conceptual and procedural knowledge, drawing on human, environmental and technical resources would be more engaging than a standardized design-make-appraise curriculum disconnected from the life experience of the student.

Might new and innovative problems be offered up by partners in the business, non-profit, and government sectors as a way of engaging students in the real world they’ll inhabit as adults?

I’ll finish be saying that we must cultivate not only the skills to inquire, design and build, but also the curiosity and will to do so. You can do both, but the educational culture in the home and school has to work with you in this equation. I can put tools in front of my children and teach them to use them, but if I have not instilled in them a desire to seek and solve problems, the tools will lie fallow.

So to open the discussion, I would ask:

  • Is discovery a linear process or an iterative one?
  • How do you differentiate design technology education and information technology?
  • Is your work applied research and I.T. a tool? How should they relate to one another?
  • What are your principle fears for the discipline you teach?
  • Are there opportunities for cross-discipline inquiry with other courses of study in the school like music, physics, phys. ed., or history?
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